The State of the Union – In the Public’s Eyes

By Gary Langer

Jan 23, 2012 4:29pm

Where does public opinion stand on the eve of President Obama’s third State of the Union address? Here’s the tale of the tape, drawing on data from our latest ABC News/Washington Post poll completed Jan. 15, previous ABC/Post polls since 1981 and Gallup polls before them.

1. The president’s at a dead-even split in public opinion: Forty-eight percent of Americans approve of his job performance, 48 percent disapprove.

  • In polling since 1940 only four previous presidents have started their re-election year with approval ratings less than 50 percent, and just one of them went on to win a second term, Richard Nixon in 1972. (The others were Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush.
  • Obama’s approval rating is up from a career-low 42 percent in October.
  • While he’s gained some ground, intensity of sentiment remains against him. “Strong” disapprovers outnumber those who approve strongly by 37 percent to 25 percent.
  • Plenty of presidents have had ratings as low as Obama’s, or lower, heading into SOTU addresses: GW Bush and Truman three times apiece, Johnson and Ford twice and once each for Bill Clinton, GHW Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and Nixon. Among them, GW Bush had just 32 percent approval heading into his last such address in January 2008, 16 points below Obama’s today. The lowest on record was Harry S Truman’s 23 percent heading into his 1952 SOTU.

2. The public’s still in a recession-inspired snit, albeit a slightly lessened one. Two-thirds (68 percent) say the country’s gotten seriously off on the wrong track. Fewer than half as many, 30 percent, say it’s headed in the right direction.

  • Bad as it is, that “wrong track” number is down from 77 percent in September, and “right direction” is up by 10 points.
  • “Wrong track” is slightly worse than its 62 percent heading into last year’s SOTU. It’s been higher, though: Seventy-seven percent heading into GW Bush’s last SOTU in 2008 and 78 percent for GHW Bush in January 1992. (It also was 78 percent at the time of Obama’s inauguration.)
  • In available data since 1973, “wrong track” ratings have been this high or higher heading into SOTUs seven times – ’08, ’07, ’95, ’92, ’76, ’75, and ’74. (Data for the last three are from fall of the previous years, the most recent available).
  • Unemployment has been this high or higher heading into SOTUs three times – the past two years, and once under Reagan.

 3. The president has a weak 41 percent approval rating for handling the economy (57 percent disapprove), his single greatest vulnerability. But he also has some room for push back on economic issues. Among them:

  • He leads the Republicans in Congress by a 13-point margin in trust to better protect the middle class, 48-35 percent. It’s clear why this has been advertised as a key topic of his address.
  • He leads by 8 points in trust to better handle job creation, 45-37 percent.
  • He continues to escape the main blame for the economy. By 54 percent to 29 percent, more Americans pin chief responsibility for the country’s current economic problems on George W. Bush than on Obama.
  • The public by 55-35 percent says unfairness in the economic system that favors the wealthy is a bigger problem than over-regulation of the free market that interferes with growth and prosperity. That puts Obama on the 20-point more popular side of this central debate.
  • While just 45 percent say the economy’s even begun to recover, that’s up by 9 points since November. And the president’s approval on handling it also is up a bit, by 6 points, from its low last fall.

4. Obama also has significant vulnerabilities beyond the economy and the broad unhappiness it’s engendered. Among his lowest ratings, just 35 percent approve of his handling of the deficit. And fewer than half, 47 percent, say he’s achieved significant accomplishments as president.

  • Countering these, Obama may make reference to the demise of Osama bin Laden last spring. The president maintains a 56-percent approval rating on handling terrorism, his best on any issue we’ve tested.

5. Look for slings and arrows directed at Congress; for all the president’s problems, he’s positively popular in comparison.  

  • Just 13 percent of Americans approve of the way Congress is handling its job, its lowest in nearly 40 years of polling by ABC News with The Washington Post, and Gallup previously. Sixty-five percent “strongly” disapprove, 28 points worse than Obama’s negative intensity.
  • Cutting to the parties, the Republicans in Congress have a lower approval rating, 21 percent, than the Democrats’, 33 percent.

6. All this, and an election year too.

  • Obama runs about evenly with Mitt Romney in our latest poll – among registered voters, it’s Romney 48 percent, Obama 46. Against Newt Gingrich the president does better – Obama 52 percent, Gingrich 40. Obama vs. Ron Paul is 49-42 percent; vs. Rick Santorum, 52-41 percent.
  • The president is not favored to win re-election in the public’s eyes. Asked whom they expect to win, 49 percent of Americans say it’s the eventual Republican candidate, 46 percent, Obama. Nonetheless, that’s significantly better for Obama than the 55-37 percent split on this question in October.

In sum, as the economy’s gained a little traction, so has the president’s popularity. The gains are tenuous, though, and any number of forces – including, for instance, the price of gasoline, a confidence-killer that’s on the move again – could send him reeling.

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